Friday, September 29, 2006

California and the Big Six

California's going to court. The state is sueing what it calls the "big six" automakers (GM, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Nissan, Toyota, and Honda), and is seeking tens or hundreds of millions of dollars (the quote I found from the attorney general for the state wasn't too specific on exact amounts...) in damages.

These car manufacturers continue to churn out vehicles that emit CO2 - that so very famous greenhouse gas. In fact, the cars made by these companies emit 289 000 000 metric tonnes (or thereabouts) of the stuff into the American atmosphere every year. That really is a lot. And California is feeling the effects of global warming, it says: reduced snow pack (which will lead to water shortages in an area that is already home of some of the worst water supply problems on the continent), increased ozone pollution and concomitant health effects, beach erosion, wildlife impacts...

So California s trying to do something. They legislated tougher emissions from tailpipes - the strictest such regulations ever as part of their plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% (hurrah!!). And the car companies are holding them up by making legal claims that federal law overrules the new state law on tailpipe emissions (Boo).

And so California appears to be retaliating. And I have to say it's kind of fun, and I love that the whole thing has generated a ton of publicity.

The problem is: why doesn't the state sue the people who drive the cars? Or the municipalities for not providing alternate public transit alternatives?

Who, ultimately is responsible for these emissions? Is is the car companies, with their alluring and coersive advertising? They do prefer that we spend more dollars, which means buying bigger, less fuel-efficient cars, after all. Is it the governement, which often builds roads instead of funding transit? Perhaps it's the scientific community for failing to adequately convey conviction about whether global warming is happening at all - or the oil industry for injecting doubt into the debate.

Or... is it us, who appear to place convenience above the short and long-term health of our communities (and put pressure on our political leaders to build more roads)?

P.S. Thanks Simone for the tipoff!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Fun with words VII

So according to some random website I came across today (OK, actually, it's a column from the Hindustan Times), there's a new "longest word in the English language". It's


It’s 45 letters long. It’s a lung disease caused by the inhalation of very fine silica dust, mostly found in volcanoes. I'm wondering if this is common among volcanologists - mostly because if it qualifies as an occupational disease then I might be able to included it in one of the lectures I have to give next week.

The author listed a bunch of really long words - some that don't really count as words in the English language because they aren't really used, like


(representing the thunderclap when Adam and Eve were thrown out off Eden. Honestly now. Who could ever be tenacious enough to figure out how to say that without looking at it?)

Then we have:

Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia (fear of long words... Ihehe)

floccinaucinihilipilification (the art of estimating something to be worthless)

Oh, and antidisestablishmentarianism - the long word we usually think of first? Apparently, since the church was not disestablished (i.e, the disestablishmentarians weren't too fond of the church of England in the mid-1800s.. but clearly, the church is still, uh established), the word is no longer in use.

Stress offers relief! I've been working away at this darn degree for, oh, we won't go into details about how many years, now. I've had on-and-off other things to do, like do a bit of consulting, marking papers at the university, writing my own for submission - and of course all my fun extra-curriculars.

But nothing that needs to be done NOW. For most of the stuff I've been working on, there's been lots of time or a flexible deadline. And so I've achieved a high level of skill at procrastination. Oh yes, I have my favorite webistes, and I'm a regular contributor to a couple of discussion boards. For the nonprofit I volunteer with, I take on those weekday chores that regular folks (the ones who have jobs) can't do... I do feel minor guilt at making cookies midday, but nothing that warm, gooey chocolate chips can't cure. Oh, and I have a blog...

I was starting to get worried that I no longer actually had the skill to focus on a task for longer than five seconds at a time. I was thinking that this could be a disadvantage should I ever actually enter the workforce.

[sending prayers to the thesis Gods]Please!![\sending prayers]

Lately though, I've had a lot to do. I've actually been feeling a bit ... gasp! stressed. And I've found myself sitting at the computer actually focussed on "work-related stuff" for several hours at a time. Without checking a single message board.

Thank God. I still know how to concentrate.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Philip Morris, Climate Change Skeptic

I think I have been aware for a while that Big Tobacco has some sneaky ways of influencing public opinion and injecting questionable evidence about cigarettes and smoking into the marketplace. One of the ways they do this is by using "front groups" that appear to represent restaurateurs and bar owners to oppose smoking bylaws, for example.

But who knew that Philip Morris would end up financing communication of biased climate change skepticism? An recently published excerpt from a new book explains how this ended up happening: back in the day (OK, about 15 years ago) a public relations company told PM that they needed to create the impression that a grassroots movement had formed out of the blue to fight "overregulation", and that it should protray the dangers of tobacco smoke as just one "unfounded fear" among many. The others could be things like concerns about pesticides and cellphones - and climate change.

The public relations company founded a coalition - and got paid lost of cashola by PM - to do this. So basically, Big Tobacco got involved in providing biased information about all sorts of issues to the public. The whole point was to select out the research (however minimal it might be compared to the entire body of scientific literature) that could create doubt in the public mind about all of these issues, and undermine the credibility of government research in general.

That's just lovely.

Thanks Caroline, for the link!

Thursday, September 21, 2006


No, I'm not talking about the declining/recovering/maybe recovering/maybe not cod stocks on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. I'm talking about picking up something at the post office that is designated as "C.O.D.", or "cash on delivery".

Silly Moi, I have never picked up a COD package before and I assumed that in this modern day and age, that "cash" really meant "cash or debit or credit card" at the very minimum.

Imagine to my surprise as I picked up an item that I needed to pay almost $500 for (wedding photos have arrived!) that I actually needed CASH.

I gather from Canada Post's website that debit and credit card "may be used (where available)". I am so surprised that this does not include "everywhere".

I tried to figure out what proportion of Canada Post outlets have this capability (not mine, obviously, which meant that I had to trot off to the bank and wait in another lineup and actually speak to a teller - unusual in this day and age but I wanted more money than the ATM was willing to give me... I felt like I was doing everything the "old-fashioned way" today), but I couldn't find any stats during my rather limited search of their website.

Ah, searching the web. So much for my "old-fashioned" day!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006



...did anyone else hear the translation of Chavez' speech to the UN today where he called George Bush the devil?

Funny. And the audience could be heard chucking in the background, much to my surprise. Maybe the UN delegates are a bit less straight-laced and politically correct than I would have suspected.

Of course, (IMO) Bush isn't actually quite as smart as the devil, nor does he have much control over what happens in the U.S. (Or Iraq, which may become his own personal hell eventually, but that's another post altogether). Still, his (non-existant?) environmental strategy may result in some parts of his country becoming significantly warmer over the long-term. And having most of Manhattan underwater (which is a projected to happen under some climate change scenarios) would certainly be hellish for anyone who currently has an address there.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Dutch get tired of windmills

The traditional Ducth landscape: flat, green, a dike in the background, and a windmill gently turning in the foreground. Ah, how pastoral.

Well, not so much these days. The Dutch are starting to get sick of all the power-generating windmills that are in their picturesque landscape, so they are deciding to move some of their windfarms offshore where they can't be seen.

In all truth, these wind turbines seem barely related to the windmills of the past: their arms reach as high as a football field is long - and the first offshore wind farm is going have 36 of them, all side-by-side. The Dutch government - which aims to get 9 % of its energy from renewable sources by 2010 (which is only four years away, folks..!!), has mapped out plans for a total of 65 offshore wind farms in the next ten yous. Somehow they have managed to do this without obstructing shipping lanes or anyone's view (except perhaps on extremely clear days - and methinks those are pretty rare in Holland).

The Netherlands seems to be working really hard to make renewables "work". I wish we were as committed to finding alternatives that work in Canada.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Hehe, Wikipedia has a whole page dedicated to this question. And it's called "chicken.on-wiki" which somehow strikes me as being quite hilarious.

The page is filled with "answers" from famous (mostly historical) personalities.

I.e., Erwin Schrödinger's answer: Chicken? Chicken!? Where's my cat?


Actually (and somewhat to my disappointment I must say), after a quick "google" I discovered that there are tons similar of why did the chicken cross the road websites, like this one:

Colonel Sanders' answer: I missed one?

and this one:

Bill Gates' answer: I have just released the new Chicken Office 2000, which will not only cross roads, but will lay eggs, file your important documents, and balance your checkbook...

The fact that there are so many websites makesthe whole thing seem much less novel - and therefore way less funny. Still, Schroedinger's "answer" to the riddle will probably keep me giggling at random points throughout the day.

Friday, September 15, 2006

I can't answer that

It's the beginning of September - ah, a time for renewal, for starting new things, for re-committing to old projects. Even my horoscope said yesterday that it was a good time to get focussed and that I will be productive.

One of my new projects is that I'm teaching this term. Yup - I'm actually in charge of making sure some young minds absorb some specific information. And I get to lecture to them three times a week (poor things). This was a very exciting chance for me to try out this whole teaching gig - after all, if I decide I want to be an academic (the jury's still out on that - although less because of the teaching and more because of some the department politics I've observed even as a lowly graduate student) I will probably end up doing a lot of instructing.

Anyway - week one of lectures is now complete. And people who know me keep saying, "so how is it going?"

The funny thing is... it's really hard to tell. I find it a bit stressful coming up with the right number of slides three times a week - although once I've got that together the talking part's not so bad. What I wonder is: how the students percieve the class. It's not as if they come up afterwards and say, "hey, by the way, you did a great job of explaining that concept today", or "you know, I find you kind of boring". They just gather up their stuff and head on their merry way... that's what I'll do too, unless I hear any complaints, I guess!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Ridiculous Revenge

So the sad story of labour day weekend was that Steve Irwin, aka the "Crocodile Hunter" was killed while he was filming a documentary. A stingray got him right in the heart. Apparently it's quite ucommon for a stingray to actually be fatal, and Steve Irwin's death is only the third recorded stingray fatality in Australia.


And now people are out, taking revenge - on other stingrays. Yep, at least ten have been found dead since Steve Irwin died - most often with their tails cut right off. Oh, so that makes a lot of sense. In order to express anger about the death of someone admired for their ability to bring excitment and information about animals and conservation to the public, it make sooo much sense to go and kill some wildlife. The same wildlife that Irwin was no doubt attempting to highlight in his documentary in order to educate people about how cool it is.

The Crocodile Hunter must just be rolling over in his grave.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Frivolous Festival, or..?

So the big event in Toronto these days is TIFF, or the Toronto film festival. It's an event that reminds my why the flim industry always seems (to me) like one big paradox:

Many of the movies screened at the festival will be described as "exploring human nature" "pushing boundaries", or "examining the self/the world/our relationships". Basically, a lot of these films are creative attempts to help us - and the people who made them - better understand ourselves and our surroundings. They are trying to penetrate our (collective public) brains, make us think about new things, and understand ourselves and our world better. Although not all films screened at the festival are trying to be profound - some are just fun flicks, this is definitely a palpable side of TIFF.

But then... the festival's alter ego seems to be pure superficiality. Most obviously is the crazy celebrity culture: social columnists trying to figure out who will come to TO and who will be a "no-show", people staking out spots outside Roy Thompson Hall and the Sutton Hotel just to get a glimpse of someone famous, and the sudden displacement of world news by movie stars in National newspapers (I'm thinking here of Saturday's Globe and Mail, which had Penelope Cruz on the front cover). For people involved in the film industry, it seems worse: they have to get into the right parties, appear in the right magazines and papers, and wear the right clothing for each event.

So is it really about stimulating thought and discussion - or is it actually just about looks and fame?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Faith Parade?

Today whilst wandering the streets of Toronto, we came upon a whole bunch of different "events": taste of Toronto, (where I had some very mediocre curry), a protest against corruption in Taiwan, and a bunch of women who were apparently celebrating "Tai Chi Day" by wearing bright orange T-shirts.

And then there was all this religious-y stuff. I'm not sure why, and some quick Googling was not enlightening. We saw music and evangelism and quite a crowd behind Queen's park this afternoon - and earlier, a parade that completely clogged Yonge and College. It included several different flatbeds full of people, each producing some variety of Christian music. All were producing said music loud enough for it to be distorted and pretty unmusical. At the end of the parade was a flatbed with several people depicting the crucifixion (including someone who was on the cross). That was the bit that made me realize that the whole show made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

I'm not sure why: I have no issue with Christianity or of being proud of your faith... and surely it can't be the "show-off" tendencies of the parade - since I thoroughly enjoy the pride parade.
Maybe it's just that get the feeling that everyone in the parade thinks that everyone else would be so much better off if they'd join in. It's probably something that I project onto the event rather than something real. Wonder what that says about me. Religion is such a wierd thing.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Break the Addiction

... our addiction to dirty energy, that is.

Students at a bunch of schools in the States have managed to introduce fees of about $30 per student to pay for clean energy for their schools. The money is used by the colleges to buy electricity from sources such as wind power or solar power.

That would be cool all on its own, but I've now read that MTV and an NGO called the Energy Action Coalition are launching a competition to encourage more schools in the U.S. to get on the green bandwagon. The contest is being called "Break the Addiction" (geddit?)

Way cool. The winning students will get prizes like a green renovations for their student lounges.

This is the latest in a slew of media attention that's been devoted to energy efficiency this summer. For example, TV ads in Ontario promoted power-saving strategies this year - the first time I've ever seen an ad like that and all part of a pretty impressive (I think) education and incentive program started by the provincial government this year.

Are we finally going to get people to pay attention to the implications of our energy use, I wonder?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

I Hate My Fridge

My fridge sucks. It sucks energy, and it sucks the life out of my veggies.

It's a clunker - think "beer fridge in my pal's basement" and you're probably thinking of the right kind of refrigerator. I don't know what vintage it actually is, except OLD. The darn thing doesn't seem to keep anything fresh - if I buy anything that comes in bunches, like spinach or lettuce, I'm almost guaranteed to be throwing some of it out. I hate that - it makes me feel guilty. And irritated that I've wasted perfectly good spinach that I paid for.

On the other hand, shopping for fruit and veg every single day is a bit tiresome. In the last few years, it's been fairly easy because of my flexible graduate-student schedule. Lately though, I've been busier and the time it takes to maintain a stash of fresh produce is getting to be a bit of a bore.

But, wait! It's not all about MOI. Did you know that refrigerators use the most energy out of any household appliance? According to the David Suzuki Foundation, A 2002 Energy Star refrigerator uses less than half the electricity of a standard 10-year-old model. Geez, we're letting Nanticoke pump all that air pollution into our city air for this?

So, my fridge contributes to poor air quality, food waste, and my own personal frustration. Sadly, I live in a rental unit and don't have a whole lot of control over the appliances in it... I have a feeling that as long as it seems to be colder inside than out, nobody will be replacing it anytime soon.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Yesterday's Post

Labour day weekend is over. Actually it was sort of over last night, which is why this should have been yesterday's post. I heard on the news yesterday that there was a parade in downtown Toronto celebrating workers and reminding Canadians that there are labour issues that still need sorting out.

I was surprised to realize that I'd never actually heard of a Canadian labour day parade before... and apparently there's at least one other parade held every year (in Ottawa). I'm not sure if this speaks more to my ignorance of labour issues or to bad timing tied to a lack of publicity for the events.

Or this: labour day has never had anything to do with unions or worker rights for me - it's always been a potent symbol of the end of summer. It's all about going back to school or work and taking on a new, more motivated attitude towards work - or life in general.

I like having this division between summer and fall.... but somehow I want the day off to be all about vacations and laziness and rumpled clothing and flipflops. Not about work. I wonder if many Canadians feel the same way - could this be why the meaning of "labour day" is lost on so many of us?

Friday, September 01, 2006

O Canada, native home of asbestos


O Canada, I'm not too impressed. I've been reading up on asbestos lately and while I knew that we were one of the countries that still mined asbestos, I didn't quite realize that Canada is the second-largest producer of asbestos in the world (behind Russia). Also that we export 95% of it.

That's nice of us: we don't want to get asbestosis or mesothelioma or various cancers - all of which are horrible diseases that can be caused by exposure to asbestos - but we're willing to let people in some poor third-world nation take the risk. Because that's where most of it goes: 60 countries, including Britain, France, Australia and the European Union (i.e., all the rich ones) have banned its use in whole or in part. So we're offering places like India the chance to have a preventable health disaster.

Because it is preventable: the link between exposure and disease is pretty clear. In fact, there has been tonnes of litigious activity in the developed countries, and rightly so in many cases. After all, the first cases were won in 1929 - but we've sure had lots of people working, unprotected, with asbestos since then. There's the Holmes foundry, in Sarnia, where levels of airborne asbestos thousands of times the current allowed level were measured before the place shut down. Now there's a cluster of asbestos-related diseases there.

Now that I've made my bias clear, I should briefly present to you the industry argument: the form of asbestos mined here is called chrysotile, and is thought to be less dangerous than some of the other forms. It is much harder and less dusty and likely to break into potentially dangerous fibres than the older forms (called crocidolite and amosite). Apparently, " representatives of the world's major chrysotile exporting mines signed an agreement whereby they committed to supply chrysotile fibre only to those companies that demonstrate compliance with national health and safety regulations. "

Well... whatever.